unplug either end and plug it into my ibook (OS X) the status changes
to active and I can ping the other computer. From this I can see that
both both freebsd computers have working ethernet cards and the cable
works also, just not freebsd-freebsd.

Does anyone have any ideas why this might be the case and how to fix it?

bad cable or not swapped at all.

between 2 computers you have to make swapped cable on one side put green pair in place of yellow, yellow in place of green, brown in place of blue and blue in place of brown.

If it's 10 or 100 Mbps ethernet blue&brown doesn't matter, only 2 pairs are used.
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